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Category Archives: 2. Psychology

The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples)

LevineRotten Apples

(Image from Alan Levine at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/10898783774/)

This is the second of three posts on the Stanford Prison Experiment: the myth of what happened (last post), an alternative explanation for what happened (this post), and how that relates to the abuses at Abu Ghraib (next post).
The oversimplified version of the SPE is that the guards all became abusive, irrespective of their values and personalities, because they fell into the role required of them in the prison situation. Zimbardo’s full account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) shows it was much more complicated than that, and he discusses thoughtfully and at length the various processes involved. As usual, this shows the value of going back to original accounts or papers, rather than relying on the text-book versions. I’ve discussed in the previous post how Zimbardo’s account shows considerable ‘personality-related’ variation in behaviour amongst both prisoners and guards, and questioned the extent to which situation/role governed everyone’s behaviour (though Zimbardo points out quite convincingly how he himself was overcome by the expectations of the ‘prison governor’ role).

The kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen in other total institutions* (schools, children’s homes, care homes: see examples in the previous post), so the ‘SPE effect’ is pretty robust – but not all these total institutions have potentially dangerous inmates and a punitive (or at least corrective) ethos like a prison, so it can’t be simply the ‘prison guard role’ which is causing the effect.
My explanation is rather simple: individuals with a propensity for bullying and the ‘rotten apple’ effect, coming together in a total institution environment with lax controls on worker behaviour.

Zimbardo’s account distinguishes clearly between the ‘tough guards’ and the ‘good guards’, and even discusses a power struggle between them, which the tough guards win. One individual stands out: a guard named by Zimbardo in the book as Hellman (not his real name), who the other guards nicknamed ‘John Wayne’. In the available videos of the SPE which you may have seen he is a tall guard with straight fair hair who usually appears as taking a lead role in taunting the prisoners, and The Lucifer Effect emphasises his dominance and enthusiasm for mistreating the prisoners (which Hellman presents as his own ‘experiment’ to see how far he could go before someone stopped him: Zimbardo, 2007, p194).
Zimbardo commented on him, years later: “He was creative in his evil. He would think up very ingenious ways to degrade, to demean the prisoners.” BBC2 (2002)
Just after the end of the experiment, one of the prisoners talking to Hellman about how he might have behaved himself as a guard says: “I don’t think, I don’t believe, I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t think l would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand? […] I think I would have been a guard, I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece!.” Zimbardo 2007, p193
I also remember Zimbardo reporting a conversation between one of the other guards and Hellman: “I know we have to do this stuff, Dave, but you don’t have to be so damn good at it.” I’m ashamed to say I can’t find the source for this now: if you know it, please let me know.

So, a personality difference, with one person seemingly more inclined to be abusive than others. But several other guards followed his lead, and no other guard, even ones that both Zimbardo and the prisoners regarded as ‘good guys’, effectively stopped the abuse. This is where the rotten apple effect comes in.

Rotten apples

Whenever some example of institutional abuse or corruption emerges, some senior spokesperson will blithely say ‘of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but….’ to reassure the public that there’s no fundamental problem. Such people are using a metaphor they don’t understand (don’t you hate people like that?), are actually confirming (if they understood what they were saying) that there is a real systemic problem, and worst of all DON’T KNOW ABOUT STORING FRUIT. The point about a rotten apple is that it quickly makes all the other apples in the barrel rotten. If it’s not removed at the first sign of decay, the whole lot can be lost. And that’s what rotten apples do: they’re not isolated instances – they’re centres of systemic corruption, once they’re allowed to get away with their rottenness. That seems to be what happened in the SPE: a ‘creatively evil’ person, running their own ‘experiments’, and lax management (Zimbardo), who allowed that kind of thing to take hold. Zimbardo is well aware of that in retrospect, and in The Lucifer Effect he staunchly owns up to his responsibility. Zimbardo does understand the metaphor, but he turns it around by suggesting that the situation was a ‘rotten barrel’ which infected the apples, not the other way around. There is some truth in that, and it may be a characteristic of total institutions (especially those with lax management) to provide ideal conditions for the infection to spread unopposed, but the influence of someone like guard Hellman is an important starting point. There seems to have been a similar influence at Abu Ghraib, which I’ll describe in the next post.

* The term ‘total institution’ comes from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: well worth reading as background to all this stuff. (Everything Goffman wrote is well worth reading.)

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together live an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Goffman, 1961, 1991: p11 in 1991 Penguin edition

An ‘appreciable period of time’ doesn’t have to be continuous, I think, so day schools can fit here, though boarding schools do fit better.

References
The standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment is:
C Haney, C Banks, P Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), but you probably won’t be able to get hold of that.

BBC2 (2002) The Stanford Prison Experiment

Goffman, Erving (1991, 1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates London: Penguin Books

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at http://www.prisonexp.org/ and The Lucifer Effect at http://www.lucifereffect.com/ (but that’s not a substitute for reading the book).

(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at http://www.bbcprisonstudy.org/). Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/dec/20/schools.newschools),

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-20084254

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/27/children-derry-care-homes-inquiry

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

References
Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at  http://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/msh/mh_teaching_site_files/teaching_pdfs/C82SAD_lecture8/The%20Experiment%2001%20-%20Reicher%20%26%20Haslam%20(2006).pdf
Also see http://wwww.bbcprisonstudy.org for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at http://www.prisonexp.org/ and The Lucifer Effect at http://www.lucifereffect.com/

Mind? Brain? As a psychologist, who cares?

This started out as an overlong comment on Facebook, in response to some posts by Andrew Dunn and Colin Johnson about the brain-mind problem. Thanks, as always, to Andrew and Colin for giving me interesting things to think about. The starting point for the discussion was a video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGm5MJH8Xc4&sns=fb) suggesting that we can see mind as an emergent feature of brain, and/or that we can think of mind as being like software and brain like hardware. Both of those are ideas worth considering, and I find the software/hardware analogy quite alluring, though it doesn’t quite hold up or explain anything if you look at it closely, but then I thought: is this my problem? As a psychologist (and as an everyday walking-around person), the issue is mind (conscious awareness) and only mind. Phenomenologically, the *only* thing that exists for me is my mind/consciousness/awareness/experience, so that is the core reality. OK, from some outside perspective mind might be an epiphenomenon of brain activity, but for me, the brain activity is more of an epiphenomenon of my existence. I know that changes in brain activity affect my experience (vascular dementia, alcohol, whatever it is that makes me left-handed, which does seem to be related to other characteristics), and I will sometimes deliberately mess with my brain to affect my experience (alcohol), and maybe some things about my brain make that more or less dangerous for me than for others (addiction-prone or -resistant brain structures?)– but the only thing that’s actually going on for me is my experience. It would be fascinating to know something about the machinery of that experience, and that knowledge could be used to change my experience – as we now know enough about exercise physiology to bio-engineer athletic performance – but the brain things I might do with that knowledge would be mind-driven and mind-purposed. In the original discussion, Colin pointed out that that the bit we’re aware of is only a tiny fraction of all the things the brain does (absolutely right), and said “..and we are then supposed to induce that that small channel of neural activity is what makes you ‘you’? – nonsense”, and that’s right at one level – but at the level of my lived experience, me being “me” is the only game in town. I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, and once I’ve done that I can’t be brain activity: there has to be a mind. All I have is my experience, and all that that is built on is my experience, and where that experience might come from is interesting, entertaining, and possibly useful, but it doesn’t stop my experience being my experience. So, although it might be possible to solve the problem of mind “by the objective and experimental analysis of the brain proper” (quote from Colin again), the only point of doing that, as a human, would be to satisfy our curiosity about how we work, or to use the information to modify our experience – so it remains an experiential, mind-governed enterprise. Actually, there’s also the problem of the inbuilt indeterminacy of the systems involved, which might make the problem insoluble in engineering terms (see https://millerpsych.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/chaos-determinism-psychology/) but it’s still worth trying). As an ex-physiologist, I’m fascinated by this stuff, just as I remember being mightily impressed by cross-current filtration in the kidney, and how that’s paralleled by cross-current heat exchangers in birds’ legs, but my real involvement in kidney physiology is having to get up to go to the toilet, or discussions and feelings about my friend’s experience of kidney failure. So, this is a claim for psychologists to be interested in mind-type things, and only bother about the brain where it clearly does impose on conscious experience, just as we only bother about society when it impinges from the other direction. Physiology and sociology and politics are fine, but they’re not really the appropriate level of analysis for a lot of what goes on with people (they are the right level of analysis for some other things that go on). This argument seems to me to be very similar to the resolution of Descartian doubt – how can I be sure that what I think I’m experiencing is what’s really going on? Well, if what I’m experiencing is all I can experience, who cares? Unless I’m being offered a choice between blue and red pills, I might as well – actually, I need to – get on with living that (possibly illusory) experience – what else could I do? As with the ‘let psychology be psychology’ argument above, there is some leakage from other realities: study of optical illusions shows a fracture between two versions of available reality, and you could see irrational dissonance reduction or Freudian repression and defence mechanisms as evidence of other fractures – and useful in casting light on what the ‘sum’ of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is, but still, there’s enough existential doubt around, for goodness sake, without actually needing to doubt one’s existence.

As The Man (Lao-Tzu) said: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Tao Te Ching 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

This was written at the turn of 2013/14, and if you’ve persisted this far, I wish you all a very Happy New Year – but remember that while the occurrence of New Year’s Day is, of course, entirely objectively explainable in terms of the chronology of the Gregorian calendar and the cosmology of the solar system, the irresponsible saturnalia driven by existential despair which goes on on New Year’s Eve (I can hear it going on next door as I write) is entirely mind- and consciousness-driven.

Chaos, Determinism, & Psychology

I’ve been rereading James Gleick’s excellent book Chaos  (1988), and it started me thinking about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology.

Determinism in psychology has always been a personal problem for me, because it’s difficult to reconcile the rigid determinism that the science of psychology must lead to: ‘varying factor X will result in effect Y’, with the feeling of free will and choice which is an everyday experience. As a scientist, I have to go with determinism; as an individual, I feel I have free will and I regret the bad choices I continually make. OK, that’s an existential problem, but what about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology?

I think understanding chaotic systems and how they work gives us some ideas about this.

Here’s the creation myth of chaos theory: a meteorologist called Lorenz constructed a simple mathematical weather model in 1961 consisting of a dozen non-linear equations. These describe things like the relationship between temperature and atmospheric pressure, and pressure and windspeed. He fed data on these variables into a computer model and let it run to see what weather it would predict. In those days, computers were slow and calculations took a long time to run. On one occasion, he restarted the calculation that he had had to stop partway through by retyping in the figures that the incomplete run had produced.

To give the machine its initial conditions, he typed the numbers straight from the earlier printout. Then he walked down the hall to get away from the noise and drink coffee. When he returned an hour later, he saw something unexpected, something that planted the seed for a new science.

The new run should have exactly duplicated the old. Lorenz had copied the numbers into the machine himself. The program had not changed. Yet as he stared at the new printout, Lorenz saw his weather diverging so rapidly from the pattern of the last run that, within just a few months, all resemblance had disappeared. He looked at one set of numbers, then back at the other, he might as well have chosen to random numbers out of a hat. His first thought was that another vacuum tube had gone bad.

Suddenly he realised the truth. They have been no malfunction. The problem lay in the numbers he had typed. In the computer’s memory, six decimal places were stored: .506127. On the printout, to save space, just three appeared: .506. Lorentz had entered the shorter, rounded off numbers, assuming that the difference – one part in thousand – was inconsequential.
Gleick (1988), p16

But it wasn’t inconsequential. What Lorenz had discovered was that even a tiny change in the starting conditions of a process which depends on several non-linear functions can lead to unpredictable and far-reaching changes in final outcomes. This is what we now call the ‘Butterfly Effect ‘: a tiny change in weather conditions in one part of the world may lead to large unpredictable changes elsewhere. Because of this, it is now generally recognised that long-term weather prediction is practically impossible, no matter how sophisticated our computer models or how extensive and precise measurements of the conditions are.

I think the same applies in psychology. Although we can describe some psychological functions in terms of how factor X leads to effect Y, those functions are generally non-linear. A trivial but obvious example is the effect of amount of alcohol consumed on how good you feel. At low levels, increasing the amount consumed increases the sense of well-being in many people; a higher levels, increasing the amount consumed just leads to the resolution to never, ever, do this again.

Now, if the deterministic relationships which control our behaviour are non-linear, and we are complex systems in which many of these non-linear relationships interact, we are perfect examples of a chaotic system. As such, no matter how well we understand the relationships, nor how precisely we can measure (or control) the starting conditions, we cannot make long-term predictions of the outcomes.

Gleick sums this up later in the book in describing the views of psychiatrist Arnold Mandell:

To Mandell, the discoveries of chaos dictate a shift in clinical approaches to treating psychiatric disorders. By any objective measure, the modern business of ‘psychopharmacology” – the use of drugs to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to schizophrenia itself – has to be judged a failure. Few patients, if any, are cured. The most violent manifestations of mental illness can be controlled, but with what long-term consequences, no one knows. Mandell offered his colleagues a chilling assessment of the most commonly used drugs. Phenothiazines, prescribed for schizophrenia, make the fundamental disorder worse. Tricyclic antidepressants “increase the rate of mood cycling, leading to long-term increases in numbers of relapsing psychopathological episodes.” And so on. Only lithium has any real medical success, Mandell said, and only for some disorders.

As he saw it, the problem was conceptual. Traditional methods of treating this “most unstable, dynamic, infinite-dimensional machine” were non-linear and reductionist. “The underlying paradigm remains: one gene – one peptide – one enzyme – one neurotransmitter – one receptor – one animal behaviour –  one clinical syndrome – one drug – one clinical rating scale. It dominates almost all research and treatment in psychopharmacology. More than 50 transmitters, thousands of cell types, complex electromagnetic phenomenology, and continuous instability-based autonomous activity at all levels, from proteins to the electroencephalogram – and still the brain is thought of as a chemical point-to-point switchboard.” To someone exposed to the world of non-linear dynamics the response could only be: how naïve. Mandell urged his colleagues to understand the flowing geometries that sustain complex systems like the mind.
Gleick (1998), pp 298-299 (Gleick gives a reference to Mandell’s original writing: I’ve put that at the end).

We might not be quite so pessimistic as Mandell about the effectiveness of psychopharmacology, though even 25 years later I’m not sure that much has changed, and his description of the models used is a bit of a caricature, but the basic point of the unpredictable chaotic nature of the human system is surely valid.

So, even if it were the case that we were completely deterministic systems (like the meteorological systems of weather), and we could determine the relationships within those systems (which we are clearly a very long way away from being able to do at the moment), would that be useless in producing a fully descriptive, fully predictive psychology?

Well, yes and no. We now know that long-term fine-grained meteorological prediction is impossible, but short-term local weather forecasts can still be very useful, even though we don’t expect them to be completely accurate. Similarly (until we started messing around with things with ever-rising CO2 levels, at least) we can make reasonably reliable long-term general predictions. We know how April in Spain will generally differ from August in Spain, and how the weather there will generally differ from the weather in Finland at the same times of year. In many cases, that’s good enough to be going on with, but we are always aware of the possibility of ‘freak’, ‘unpredictable’ weather events.

Similarly, we can make pretty good short-term psychological predictions, certainly in terms of predicting the general outcome of experimental manipulations, and generally useful long-term predictions, based on the climatic differences between ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’, or convergent and divergent thinkers.

In fact, in a chaotic deterministic model, failures of prediction, such as the unpredictable extroverted behaviour of some introverts, and people’s ability to switch from convergent to divergent in certain circumstances, might not be disconfirming evidence for our models. Some unpredictability is to be expected. As long as we limit predictions to the very short term or to generalisms, and have some idea of the unpredictability to be expected (which chaos theory can give us), our models may serve pretty well. That is, they can serve understanding of the processes involved, but may be much less useful for control or categorisation. Even in a fully deterministic world, the ‘gene for believing in flying saucers’ is not going to be simplistically effective, and the test for leadership potential is not going to unerringly detect potential leaders.

So where does this leave the effective usefulness of a completely deterministic psychology, and what does it mean for the existential problem of the possible illusion of free will? I think it shows that the aim of describing, understanding and controlling human behaviour through deterministic (and reductionist) models is over-optimistic. We can make some weather-forecaster-like predictions, but more holistic and phenomenological ways of understanding are going to be equally useful. I think the same applies to determinism and free will. It may be that all my thoughts, reactions, and behaviours are determined, but if so, since they are determined in a way which is unpredictable (and may be unfathomable) carrying on behaving as though I have free will and I’m responsible for the choices I make not only seems to work, but might be the most practical alternative. We are aware that we are to some extent determined; we have ideas of internal and external compulsion, but we also have ideas about ways of working with that, and to the extent that these ideas work, they are practically, humanly, useful – even if fundamentally illusory. This is the solution that that old determinist Skinner came to in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Although he felt that behaviour was determined by reinforcement contingencies, somehow, if we have the ability to understand and manipulate those contingencies, we can choose to create better or worse worlds.

In some ways this is similar to the practical solution of the Cartesian problem, that we can never be sure that the world we experience is as it seems to be – that it is not an illusion produced by our senses. It could well be an illusion, but unless someone is offering us the red pill or the blue pill, there is no way of establishing that, and the only sensible thing we can do is to operate in the world as we experience it. What other world could we operate in? Also, we know that some parts of our world experience are illusory, and the understanding of that gives us a more secure basis for operating in good faith in other parts of the world.

Yes I know that’s simplistic, and ignores problems like the false consciousness associated with late-phase capitalism, but it works for me. Just as Samuel Johnson established the existence of the stone by kicking it*, my world of free will is established by the consequences of the good and bad choices I seem to be making, and the pleasure I experience in looking at the trees  and birds which seem to be in front of me.

References

Gleick, James (1988) Chaos: Making a new science London: Cardina

Mandell, Arnold J. (1985) From Molecular Biological Biological Simplifiaction to more Realistic Central Nervous System Dynamics: an Opinion in Cavenar & al (eds) Psychiatry: Psychobiological Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry New York: Lippincott (cited in Gleick, 1988)

Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity NewYork: Knopf

*After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”
— James Boswell In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1820), Vol. 1, 218.

One of the foundation myths of modern psychology: “Brain Scans Show”

I’ve written about this before (https://millerpsych.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/was-more-psychology-disguised-as-physiology-now-psychology-the-secret-of-life/ and https://millerpsych.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/just-what-are-fmri-scans-supposed-to-be-proving/), but reading through Dorothy Bishop’s excellent BishopBlog (http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/), I came across a post of hers which made the points more clearly than I can:
http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/brain-scans-show-that.html

Bishop also links to  http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/brain-scans-prove-that-brain-does-stuff.html from Neuroskeptic, who makes similar points. Neuroskeptic’s argument is not as carefully organised as Bishop’s (and ends up by dismissing the James-Lange theory of emotions as obviously rubbish, which isn’t really justified), but is pleasantly forceful.

Neuroskeptic also discusses the Bennet & al (2009) ‘brain scan of emotion-judging activity in a dead fish’ study (http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/fmri-gets-slap-in-face-with-dead-fish.html)  which Christina mentioned in her lecture. The original poster by Bennet & al (it didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed journal, as far as I know) is at http://prefrontal.org/files/posters/Bennett-Salmon-2009.jpg – .

Why do we believe these stories, and believe that brain scans are the royal road to an understanding of the unconscious (or at least a way of answering psychological questions)? I’ll try to explain in my next lecture.

Psychologist* shows that you can see almost anything in complex, ambiguous figures

A piece in Psychology Today (July 29, 2012) by Neel Burton in their ‘hide & Seek’ column: The Creation of God: Michelangelo’s awesome hidden message. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201207/the-creation-god

It’s an analysis of Michaelangelo’s famous picture from the Sistine chapel ‘The Creation of Adam’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creaci%C3%B3n_de_Ad%C3%A1n.jpg) claiming to show that “what almost everyone has missed is the hidden message that Michelangelo inserted: a human brain dissimulated in the figure of God.”

Although the Creation of Adam was painted around 1511, it is not until 1990 that Frank Lynn Meshberger, a physician in Anderson, Indiana, publicly noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the figures and shapes that make up the figure of God also make up an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain. Take a close look at the picture above and you will see the Sylvian fissure that divides the frontal lobe from the parietal and temporal lobes: it is represented by a bunching up of the cape by one of the angels and by a fold in God’s tunic. The bottom-most angel that appears to support the weight of God is the brainstem, and his trailing scarf the vertebral artery. The foot of another angel is the pituitary gland, and his bent knee the optic chiasm where the optic nerves from the eyes partially cross over. The ingenuity and level of detail is simply staggering, and a lasting testament to Michelangelo’s extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy.

Yeah, right. Take another look and you’ll see that if it is an image of the brain, then the cerebellum has been blown to ribbons, and there’s a very unhealthy-looking overdevelopment of the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. Also most of God’s body is in the midbrain, with a bit of His head sticking through into the frontal lobes. Given that God is the primary image in the right-hand cloud, what was M’s meaning in slicing up his body so randomly amongst different brain areas, given his “extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy”?

I think this is just another example of the powerful and compelling ability we have to extract meaningful information from very complex or confusing input – which sometimes leads us to ‘see’ clearly things which just aren’t there. You will have heard of images of the Virgin Mary  on pieces of toast, or sliced tomatoes (I regularly see Lao Tsu in my porridge).

An old example is this image:

Hidden face

Said to be originally a photograph of a snowy mountainside, but ‘revealing’ an image of a bearded man with long hair (some say Christ, some say Gerry Garcia: it’s probably Allen Ginsberg) if you look at it long enough. If you don’t see it,don’t worry. The face will pop out at you sooner or later, and once you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to go back to the meaningless blobs.

We all do this kind of thing with clouds, as Shakespeare noted some time ago:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

— Hamlet, III.ii

OK, this is Hamlet mocking Polonius for always agreeing with what the boss says, but it only makes sense because we all know that we can see all kinds of things in the complex, ambiguous patterns of clouds.

Charles Schultz used the idea too, in Peanuts:

Peanuts strip

In case you can’t read the speech bubbles above,or the image link stops working:

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. [points up] That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there… [points] …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.

Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

So, I think Neel Burton is wrong – and I think he’s missed an even more remarkable clue: God is passing the spark of life from his finger to Adam – just like the spark of life which ignites the petrol/air mixture in the combustion chamber of the petrol engine (M. did actually do drawings of a flat-four hemihead air-cooled engine, intended to power his famous helicopter, but they were lost in the 19th century). So every time I fire up the Bristol, I reflect on M’s secret message about the true meaning of life.

If you really want to get into the ‘M’s secret messages’ stuff, here’s  Orion in the Vatican by Daniel A. Wilten, an online book (only $9.99): http://www.orioninthevatican.com/

Witness the Orion nebula hidden in high altars and in famous frescoes by masters such as Michelangelo since the early 1500’s
Discover the famous fresco depicting the Orion constellation in the main vault of the mother Jesuit church
Discover the true origin of the winged disk and where the ancients derived its symbolism
Learn why Hermes Trismegistos declared Egypt the image of heaven
See proof of the Hall of Records and the Orion nebula matching recent development in Egypt
Resdiscover mystical knowledge uncovered after thousands of years
Learn man’s connection to the Orion nebula and its association to consciousness
Learn why the Orion nebula is the master code

*Not a psychologist, actually. Psychology Today says: “Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.”

What do you mean: ‘hardwired’?

In a previous post I talked about some research which was (mistakenly, I think, and so do the original researchers) presented as revealing ‘hardwired racism’ in the brain. Whatever that research means about racism, or, however weirdly, what racists think it means, that started me thinking about what ‘hardwired’ might really mean. Here’s an online definition:

hard-wire (härdwr); tr.v. hard-wired, hard-wir•ing, hard-wires
1. To connect (electronic components, for example) by electrical wires or cables.
2. To implement (a capability) through logic circuitry that is permanently connected within a computer and therefore not subject to change by programming.
3. To determine or put into effect by physiological or neurological mechanisms; make automatic or innate: “It may be that certain orders of anxiety are hard-wired in us” (Armand Schwerner).
http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hard-wired

The first meaning is almost literal, though ‘hard’ metaphorically implies more permanence than just ‘wiring’ as a verb by itself; the second meaning is metaphorical, in that there are unlikely to be any actual wires involved, but still factually follows on from the first. Even here, some of the ‘wiring’ could actually be logic programming, but programming which isn’t accessible to change. So it’s ‘harder’ programming than the ‘firmware’ in your camera, which can be changed, but is left unchanged in normal use, and the software I’m using to write this (though strictly speaking Windows and Word are firmware, from the description I’ve just given).

The third meaning here is completely metaphorical, and it’s always necessary with metaphors to be very careful to work out where the metaphorical meaning stops. Metaphors are innately dodgy and misleading, as Terry Pratchett has Carrot Ironfoundersson point out: “…Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I have been learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative” (Pratchett, 1989, p183).

Also there are two different meanings under 3): a) to put into effect by physiological mechanisms, and b) to make automatic or innate. I don’t see that b) follows from a) and I’ll argue that through below.

I think there are two kinds of hardwiring that neuroscientists and psychologists talk about. One kind derives from the basic physiology of certain sensory and mental processes, and is likely to be shared with other animals, because that’s just the way these things have evolved to work. Basic visual processes in humans are like this, as is the link between brain activity, the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, the release of adrenaline/epinephrine into the blood, and at least some of the effects of that release. It is easy to see how some of these basic mechanisms could be evolutionarily modified from a basic plan from species to species. Since Pavlov’s day, we’ve been learning more and more about the physiology and neuroscience of eating and satiety, and probably all mammals share some of the same basic processes, but it would make sense if it were balanced differently for continuous eaters like pandas and shrews, the complex feeding patterns of grass-eaters, or opportunistic omnivores like humans, and we have a hard-wired explanation of obesity built round this*. That roughly corresponds to 3a), and does certainly contain some automatic and innate mechanisms.

The other idea about hardwiring is sociobiological and is evolutionarily vaguer. Certain patterns of behaviour are more likely to lead to the production of reproductively successful offspring, and so are naturally selected. This only works in Darwinian terms if that pattern of behaviour is innate and automatic, such that it can be genetically transmitted and maintained. Other patterns of behaviour which are equally advantageous could be passed on culturally, and might well be selected and maintained, but here we’re talking about memes and behaviour that isn’t innate and automatic, that it can still evolve by a process of cultural selection. So how can you tell which is which? In some cases, like the excellence of traditional music, the evolutionary success of the book, and the story of the rat bone in the restaurant meal, it’s pretty clear that this is memeic (is that the right word?) evolution, but in others, like altruism, reciprocity, and male promiscuity** it seems to me that it could logically go either way. Sometimes the argument seems to me to be circular: how do we know it’s naturally selected? Because it’s a common feature of human behaviour? Why is it a common feature of human behaviour? Because it’s been naturally selected! I think this logic applies almost as well to using books instead of clay tablets as it does to behaviour in prisoner’s dilemma games.

More convincing supporting evidence might come from studies that show similar social/psychological processes in non-human mammals to those in humans, especially those which can be neatly fitted into evolutionary advantage arguments. Patterns of behaviour which can be described as reciprocity, cheating, and grudge-bearing, as discussed by Dawkins (1981) would be an example. What doesn’t count as supporting evidence is fantasies of the lifestyle of pre-human or early human hunter gatherers, where ‘hardwired’ gender differences are held to derive from the habits of cavemen going out hunting mammoths (and having a bit on the side, as shown by the well-known principle that ‘what happens on the hunt stays on the hunt’), while the cavewomen (cavegirls?) stayed home, gathering berries and digging roots – and caveyouths demonstrated their breeding fitness by rites of passage which involved wrestling with dinosaurs, probably.

There is a useful discussion by Thomas Martin of the background to the hardwired metaphor and what it might mean for human nature from an anarchist point of view here: http://www.socialanarchism.org/mod/magazine/display/128/index.php. It’s worth reading the first part for a summary of where the idea in sociobiology/psychology comes from and then, as he points out in the intro (below), the implications that might have for our understanding of the nature of human nature:

In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
Martin (2006: intro)

There are some bits of Martin’s account I disagree with strongly, especially the idea that genes might ‘want’ to do anything, which he raises later, and you might not want to get into the anarchist thinking at the end, but it does discuss some of the problems that this idea gives to psychologists – and recognises that we may have to accept some inbuilt, evolutionarily selected, forms of behaviour.

But even if you accept that some aspects of our psychology are, metaphorically, hardwired, that doesn’t mean that they’re rigidly fixed. One of the most clearly hardwired bits of our behaviour is the ability to see yellow. In our retinas, we don’t have receptors for all the different colours of light. All we have are cells which are most responsive to red light, to green light, and blue light. So we can’t detect yellow light as such. Pure yellow light that falls on the retina stimulates both the red sensitive cells and the green sensitive cells to roughly the same degree, and when we get this ‘equal red, equal green’ signal, we see it as yellow. But we get the same signal if equal amounts of red and green light fall on the retina at the same time, which is why the television screen, which only shows red, green or blue light, can show us what appears to be a bright clear yellow. Now, we know about the ‘wiring’ of this. We can identify the colour sensitive cells, and we can even track the signals through to where they are combined in the brain to generate a ‘yellow’ channel. This goes beyond vague metaphorical hardwiring: if nerves be wires, then we know what the wires are. We can also trace the evolutionary background to this ability by comparing our visual system and retina with that of other mammals. But, although hardwired, this isn’t a fixed, rigid system. Old-fashioned incandescent room lighting is much yellower than sunlight, but when we are in an incandescently lit room we don’t see the yellow bias, and we see the range of colours that we might see in sunlight. Our responses to the signals from our retina are substantially shifted to compensate for the changed colour of light – without realising it. You can see how big the shift is by taking a photo with a camera in incandescent light (with ‘auto white balance’ turned off). It looks distinctly yellowish, where to us the scene looks as though it was illuminated by white light. As we get older, the fluid in our eye becomes tinged with yellow – so the whole world becomes yellower as you get older – but we’re not aware of this. The only place it shows up is where older people find difficulty in making out white letters on a yellow background, or vice versa.

OK, that’s unconscious, cognitive overriding of hardwiring – maybe by other systems which we might regard as being hardwired too. But here’s another example of how hardwiring can be modified and overridden by cultural and individual variation.  Our bodies have evolved to cope with ethanol, a naturally occurring poison which has a range of damaging effects. Our livers can remove it from the bloodstream and we have an enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, to support the breakdown of alcohol to less dangerous substances. I guess if you’re being picky, you could say that this is hard-moleculed rather than hardwired. But since we enjoy some of the toxic effects of alcohol, we found ways of supplying alcohol in sufficient quantity to temporarily overwhelm this system, and cultural patterns to encourage, reward and control this overdosing. And metabolism fights back, as it’s well designed to do, by increasing the amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in the system, but the determined drunk just ramps up the input. We quite quickly develop the technology to move from 5% alcohol to 15% to 80%, and also provided a cultural overlay which makes Bollinger and Laphroaig more expensive and more desirable than straight 13% and 40%. OK, there are genetic (hardwired) differences in people’s ability to metabolise alcohol, but it’s clear that cultural factors are important in the role alcohol plays in our lives.

*I’m not sure that this is quite the same as saying that individual differences in obesity are ‘genetically determined’. My first interpretation of the genetically determined explanation was that it must derive from rapid evolutionary change, so that, sometime, in the twentieth century, there was an environmental/cultural change such that fat people got much more sex than thin people, so fatness was rapidly selected for, rather like the way the colour of the peppered moth changed with pollution levels over the last two hundred years. In retrospect, I think I’d oversimplified things, but I’m still in favour of lots of sex for fat people.

**The gender difference here might be overplayed. Traditional wisdom sometimes has it otherwise: see Willie McTell’s Married Man’s a Fool (If He thinks His Wife loves No-one Else But Him) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiODT4nKbcc, evolving into the Ry Cooder version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXjmkTuYPZU. On the other hand, it’s traditionally well-known that All Men Are Bastards, but that probably covers more than just infidelity.

References
Martin, Thomas (2006) Anarchism and the Question of Human Nature Social Anarchism Issue 37
at http://www.socialanarchism.org/mod/magazine/display/128/index.php

Pratchett, Terry (1989) Guards! Guards! London: Corgi

Psychologists worried about existential queries. What’s the point?

Story by John Hooper in The Guardian today (18 July) about Corigliano d’Otranto, a small town in southern Italy, which has appointed an (unpaid) municipal philosopher. The town mayor, Ada Fiore, is a philosophy teacher. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/17/corigliano-dotranto-italy-philosophical-town

Under Fiore’s mayorship, the council has put up ceramic plaques with quotations from the likes of Saint Augustine. It has given out postcards for distribution in bars and shops that ask existential questions, such as “Why were you born?”.

The municipal philosopher (hours 3-7 on Friday, €15 a session), Graziella Lupo, said that “Much of her work was about getting people to think clearly, listen to each other and formulate questions that bore on the subject in hand.” Right on, Graziella.

Dangerous stuff, which the head of the regional psychological professional body has roundly condemned.

Dr Giuseppe Luigi Palma said the use of a consulting philosopher was “not only misleading and confusing, but utterly perilous”. He said his organisation was ready to take “all the most appropriate actions to combat any offence that may be identified”.

What would be ‘all the most appropriate actions’ here? I guess trying the old ‘My next statement is a lie. My last statement was true’ trick on her won’t work – she’ll have seen that one before. Maybe giving out postcards saying ‘Have you ever wondered why you were born? Forget it, you don’t want to know: trust me, I’m a psychologist.’ Or could the population be infected with rampant reductionism?

If you do want to take the utterly perilous step of getting into existential queries, there is a discussion group: http://existentialquestions.hyperboards.com/ (though I think a lot of the questions there are metaphysical, rather than existential), which was linked to Existential Questions TV (http://existentialquestions.wordpress.com/tv/) – but ‘this channel has been deleted’. Worrying.

For myself, I think many existential questions can be answered by watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (And although this is a perilous area where psychologists should fear to tread, I can give an explanation, based on Cox’s Transactional Stress model and the Yerkes-Dodson Law, why it isn’t a good idea for the Knight to challenge Death at chess. If you’re brave enough, email me).

Graziella Lupo is on Facebook. I haven’t friended her, but she gives some public information: among her favourite authors/books are Zygmunt Bauman (yes!), Martha Nussbaum and  Virginia Wolf, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
One of her favourite films is The Matrix – not a good choice, but perhaps it’s compulsory for philosophers. That’s backed up with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which I hope she’s recommending to the citizens of Corigliano d’Otranto.

Palma has a website: http://www.giuseppeluigipalma.com/, which is about his bid in the 2010 Puglia regional elections.

Lupo doesn’t seem impressed with Palma’s warnings:

“I don’t think the college of psychologists knows what a philosophical consultant is.” And being a philosophical consultant, she added: “Their criticism is in any case devoid of epistemological content.”

Can’t argue with that – at least, not without looking up ‘epistemological’.

ps As I’m coming near the end of 39 years of teaching psychology, the existential questions ‘what was that all about, then?’ and ‘was there any point?’ do crop up. ‘All the most appropriate action’ needs to be taken – writing blogs, calvados and singing, probably.

pps On the same page of The Guardian was the headline: “Chain of bicycle thieves sought by Paris police”. I bet that gave them a laugh. They got a completely irrelevant reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves into the piece, too.

Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886 (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2164844/Racism-hardwired-human-brain–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/02/mail-race-nature-neuroscience, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/what-racism-hardwired-headline-daily-mail

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is http://beautifulnightmare-killumbus.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/jewish-scientist-nears-physical-cure.html – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

References
Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012
At http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948
At http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738
at http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/cunningham/pdf/phelps.jocn.2000.pdf

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758
At http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/papers/03_PP_V24No4.pdf

You Are Not a Gadget: Jaron Lanier on Technology and Personhood

Saw Jaron Lanier on Newsnight last night, adding some sensible wider persepectives to a debate on ways of filtering internet porn, and was reminded of how interesting his ideas have been over the last twenty years or so.

Lanier is a virtual reality programmer and internet activist from way back. He looks like a dreadlocked Buddha (on Newsnight like a dreadlocked Buddha who has let himself go a bit), but that shouldn’t undermine his authority (actually, for me, it probably enhances it).

His recent (2010, 2011) book You Are Not a Gadget (here’s the book on Amazon.uk*)is a fascinating discussion of the social and philosophical implications of the particular ways we have chosen to structure computer systems. The basic idea is that particularly successful systems, like the World Wide Web, the mouse and windows interface, MIDI, and the UNIX operating system, both structure our reality and lock us in to those systems, pre-empting other ways of doing things (and therefore pre-empting other ways of thinking about things – and maybe pre-empting other ways of being) . The installed base/lock-in problem isn’t a new phenomenon which appeared with computing. Other examples are the qwerty typewriter/keyboard layout (did you know it was originally designed to slow down typing, but repeated attempts to introduce faster, easier-to-use systems have been complete failures – because too many people know how to do it the qwerty way?), and the steering wheel/two or three pedals way of controlling motor vehicles (actually, probably quite a good system, from what we know about multi-tasking, but probably the result of a few technological accidents 100+ years ago). These things aren’t just technology and design issues, though: they can have psychological and social implications, which is why I’m discussing his book here. One section is headed “Digital Reification: Lock-in Turns Philosophy into Reality”, which sums up the starting idea of the book well, I think.

Here’s Lanier’s opening statement about the book:

You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular Internet designs of the moment – not the Internet as a whole – tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more orientated towards treating people as relays in a global brain. De-emphasising personhood, and the intrinsic value of an individual’s unique internal experience and creativity, leads to all sorts of maladies, many of which are explored in these pages. While the core argument might be described as “spiritual,” there are also profound political and economic implications.
p. x

And here’s something about the mechanisms of how it affects us:

The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people
When I work with experimental digital gadgets, like new variations on virtual reality, in a lab environment, I’m always reminded of how small changes in the details of the digital design can profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use the button can sometimes completely altered behaviour patterns.
For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception. [Here’s the publications page at Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford: interesting stuff. Specific refs at ** below] Technologies are extensions of ourselves, and, like the avatars in Jeremy’s lab, our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.
One might ask, “If I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “if the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?” Inventors of digital technologies are like stand-up comedians or neurosurgeons, in that our work resonates with the philosophical questions; unfortunately, we’ve proven to be poor philosophers lately.
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an Internet service that is edited by vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a passive formula, but the quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.
Pp. 4-5

Now, I guess I might disagree with Lanier in believing that a random crowd of humans does have a legitimate point of view, at least a legitimate artistic/aesthetic point of view, as I argued in talking about the evolutionary view of traditional music, and so I’d go for more of a dialectic between the social/individual, because “inspiring individual intelligence” also seems a good idea. Lanier isn’t a swivel-eyed individualist, though:

A happy surprise
The rise of the web was a rare instance when we learned new, positive information about human potential. Who would have guessed (at least at first) that millions of people would put so much effort into a project without the presence of advertising, commercial motive, threat of punishment, charismatic figures, identity politics, exploitation of the fear of death, or any of the other classic motivators of mankind. In vast numbers, people did something cooperatively solely because it was a good idea, and it was beautiful.
Some of the more wild-eyed eccentrics in the digital world and guessed it would happen – but even so it was a shock when it actually did come to pass. It turns out that even an optimistic, idealistic philosophy is realisable. Put a happy philosophy of life in software, and it might very well come true!
p14

It’s an interesting book. You might want to read it.

Lanier, Jaron (2010, 2011) You Are Not a Gadget: a manifesto Alfred Knopf, 2010; Penguin Books, 2011 (‘with updated material’)

*Remember that you shouldn’t really be buying stuff from Amazon UK unless you’re a citizen of Luxembourg, where they pay their taxes.

**Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.

Yee, N. Bailenson, J.N. & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36(2), 285-312. http://www.stanford.edu/~bailenso/papers/Proteus%20Implications.pdf

Here’s Nick Yee’s 2007 Doctoral Dissertation The Proteus Effect, which describes a range of similar effects: http://www.visuality.org/genderandtechnoculture/wmst320_readings/proteuseffect_Dissertation_Nick_Yee.pdf